The mostly-male golf mafia in Augusta, Ga., doesn't have much use for Martha Burk, the woman who staged a loud, unsuccessful protest outside Augusta National to try to get the private club to open its member rolls to women. But last week, Ms. Burk was the best thing that could have happened to the National Hockey League, or at least to its emotionally charged "My NHL" ad campaign, heralding the league's return after a yearlong lockout. Her objections to the "gratuitous" sex and violence in the introductory spot got picked up all over the country, putting the campaign on the map and even linking it to the now-infamous NFL promo involving Nicollette Sheridan, Terrell Owens, a locker room, a towel and an embarrassing amount of innuendo.
The spot does indeed include a sportsman, an attentive woman and a locker room, but it's not a one-shot game opener, and most important, it has a very elevated back story.
The work of Conductor, a new agency in Santa Monica, Calif., that seeks "deep customer engagement" by using screenwriting and character-development techniques rather than conventional copywriting to produce "branded storytelling," it's the first of a five-part saga tracing the "journey of the warrior." So, say hi to Odysseus with a puck. In this case, the warrior is a bare-chested hunk sitting on a bench, putting on his skates in a mythological locker room. I say mythological, because with its Persian rug, burning candles and mood lighting, it reminds me of the sort of shrine that the Bachelor (the warrior on the ABC reality dating show) was placed in to meditate over which attractive but emotional pharmaceutical saleswoman he'd be ejecting that week.
But this is serious stuff. Designed to appeal to the hard-core hockey fan but also attract some new, softer ones, this very cinematic advertising offers an epic blend of history, myth, legend and major padding. Or lack of it. Actually, it's a toss-up as to who has the better chest here. Is it the fair maiden who shows some cleavage while wearing what seems to be a sports bra with a diaphanous robe over it as she enters to help dress the player in his shoulder pads and jersey and who coos, "Ready? ... It's time"? (She's the one Martha called a "sexual ornament.") Or is it Mr. Muscles, the half-naked actor playing the hockey guy, who has, umm, quite the attractive build? (In this way, it truly is equal-opportunity exploitation—something for straight men and women, gay men and women, you name it.)
The spot begins with dramatic music (think The Last Samurai) and a title card offering a quotation from The Art of War, by Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu: "A clever warrior is one who not only wins but excels at winning with ease." So, as the locker-room goddess applies the unguents to the warrior's gleaming chest (I made that part up, but it's almost that way), we see some hypnotic shots of his eyeball and fast cuts of his previous moments on the ice. Then he heads out the door, a sort of reverse Mean Joe Greene, to the roar of the fans, the adulation of the crowd, and we wait about three weeks for the next installment.
I've only seen the opener, but after the ritual dressing, the narrative arc (hey, they're the ones big on mixing Hollywood with Madison Avenue) follows the player as he's out on the ice facing the enemy, lining up a slap shot, then follows the puck as it reflects the excitement and pageantry of the game, and ends with victory and the celebration of the fans.
There will also be a five-minute mini-movie version that will run in cinemas; with the incredibly glistening, inside-the-ice, high-level production values (visual effects by Mike Fink of Braveheart fame, direction by Sam Bayer, who just won at the Video Music Awards for Green Day's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams"), the longer-form films will undoubtedly work well. And I also like the customization factor of the campaign: Different team jerseys can be inserted on the Warrior for each market, with the tagline changed to say, for example, "My Red Wings."
I'm all for "getting deep inside the soul of hockey," as the creators put it, and elevating the sport, and the fans with it. But at the same time, we live in a demythologized world. We've lived with sarcasm and irony for so long that it's hard to take something this big and earnest, not to mention self-important and humorless, seriously. (It's not exactly cheesy, though, because of the dazzling visuals.)
I also know that the warrior is an enduring male archetype. But it seems too abstract. At this point, the league actually has some improvements to sell that will make the game more entertaining to watch—bigger offensive zones, shootouts instead of tied games, etc. And as a former hockey mom who's sat in plenty of refrigerated bleachers and tied many a skate, I wouldn't mind seeing what some of the league's stars, whom these little boys idolized, were up to. For example, did Jaromir Jagr spend the last year gardening?
And that's the thing with the warrior. The whole metaphor seems wildly overblown. This is not life and death. These guys are great athletes who, in comparison with the NFL and the NBA, are not getting paid enough. In the end, all great advertising has to tell the truth. So let's get real—there's a real war going on, with real American warriors going into battle and putting their lives on the line. And unfortunately for them, there's no goddess around to prepare them for the journey.
Conductor, Santa Monica, Calif.
Bill Curran, Conductor
Ken Rosen, NHL